Buying a Digital Press (Now)? -- Waldman
Production digital presses are mostly electrophotographic (there's also magnetography and a few other technologies) devices that use no plates and can change images on-the-fly, hence true variable imaging. There's virtually no makeready.
Compared to an offset press, they are fairly simple to operate (don't need a traditional pressman) and the quality in both black-and-white and color is approaching offset. Many can print on almost any substrate and some can change papers on-the-fly. There are in-line finishing options available that can turn the digital press into a complete production center for automatically producing a finished product. With almost 80 percent of all multi-color offset jobs 5,000 pieces or less and with the industry growth of print-on-demand, this should be the goose that lays the golden egg.
Unfortunately, at this point, the reality doesn't completely live up to the promise. The key reasons are the high cost of disposables and their slow production speeds (speed is rated at one-sided letter-size impressions per minute), which yields a pathetically low crossover (from a cost standpoint) to small offset. Remember, cost per piece is not variable on quantity like traditional offset. Most printers tell me that the crossover or breakeven point is as low as 2,000 81⁄2x11˝ four-color, two-sided printed sheets. Most manufacturers don't deny this, and point to variable imaging and super-quick turnaround times as a reason to forget about the cost per piece in higher (but still small) quantities. They forget that in the real world nobody forgets cost and most printers haven't been able to sell variable imaging.
Fortunately, the future does promise more quality improvements and, most importantly, faster run speeds and lower per piece cost of consumables. Manufacturers also stress that a completely automated system—from file creation to shipping—is essential to short-run efficiencies and can help overcome per piece costs. Many digital presses equipped with in-line finishing can help you move in that direction.